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Voting for science

July 18, 2006

IF, AS EXPECTED, the U.S. Senate votes to expand federal support of embryonic stem cell research today, the Republican Party will begin making amends for allowing religious conservatives to stall medical progress for nearly five years. If, as threatened, President Bush uses his very first veto to block the bill, the rap on the GOP as the party hostile to science will continue to be deserved.

The government's current split-the-baby approach to embryonic stem cell research makes no sense. In 2001, Bush banned any federal funding for such science other than on the few dozen stem cell lines that had already been harvested, because he didn't want to authorize what he called the deliberate destruction of life. It made no difference to him that the research uses only embryos that would have been destroyed anyway, having been left over from fertility treatments.

The existing restrictions have created some absurdities. Because many laboratories receive private research funding not subject to the same regulations, some of them are forced to use color-coded tabs to separate identical but separately funded equipment. Others reportedly use police tape to divide the parts of their labs funded by public versus private dollars.

The Senate bill would put an end to this charade. Most important, it would lift the ban on using new stem cell lines for research. But it also would better ensure that only those embryos created for fertility treatment and targeted for destruction would be used. All donors also would have to provide written consent. These guidelines are so strict that several of the presidentially approved lines today might not qualify for funding.

Should Bush follow through on his veto threat, it's unlikely that Congress would be able to override it. The House of Representatives passed the measure 238 to 194 last year, far short of the two-thirds support necessary for an override. The Senate would require a veto-proof 67 votes, which don't appear to exist.

Embryonic stem cells can develop into any kind of cell in the body; researchers believe studying them could eventually lead to treatments for such debilitating diseases as Parkinson's and diabetes. Even if this worthy bill fails to become law, the debate about it may succeed in showing Americans that the advancement of science is more important than the advancement of politics.

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